The return of the pink bathroom suite - how to source the best vintage for your home
Believe it or not, the coloured bathroom suite is back. It may not be for everyone but for Cathy O'Donoghue, interior architect, it's a pre-loved treasure, one of her many. She tells Caroline Allen how to source the best vintage - and suites - for your home. Photographs by Naomi Kamat
When it came to creating a home for herself, her partner Louis and daughter Nancy (4), Cathy O'Donoghue came up with a mantra - collect, create, recycle and restore.
She is part of a growing number of homeowners who are embracing items with a history to bring individuality and soul to their living spaces.
Mid-century modern is having a moment, as savvy shoppers who know their Ercol from their Eames seek out everything from furniture and lighting to textiles and ceramics in specialist shops, markets, fairs and online.
Vintage appeals for a whole range of reasons from eco-friendliness to the possibility of picking up a future heirloom, and longevity. Whether you go for cheap-as-chips pieces or desirable designs by the big names, vintage items can elevate apartment and house interiors out of the ordinary.
"Most of the vintage and mid-century pieces that I have in my home are from secondhand and charity shops," says Cathy, who has a degree in interior architecture as well as experience in kitchen design and who recently established Flamingo Interior Design (flamingointeriordesign.com).
Cathy had run a vintage clothing shop in Cork city for seven years so it's not surprising that she opted for an eclectic mix of treasures when she bought her extended bungalow near Waterfall, outside Cork, two years ago.
"I love vintage for lots of reasons - every piece holds a history, a story; it adds character to a space; and it's unique. You won't see another like it too often; and it's a way of recycling," she enthuses. "I think the appeal of mid-century pieces is the simplicity in design. When a piece is less ornate, it tends to keep its appeal for longer. The quality is usually better too and people see a piece as an investment."
Cathy has been canny in her purchasing, finding Adverts.ie and Donedeal great for bargains. "I got my pink bathroom suite on Donedeal for €50. One person's trash is another's treasure after all," she says. Her record player came from Adverts.ie and she is slowly building up her vinyl collection. Another thrifty find was the vintage anglepoise light which she snapped up for €5.
The real showstopper in the house, Cathy remarks, is the bathroom. "The Cole & Son tropical print wallpaper alongside the old pink bathroom suite and subway tiles gives the space a very on-trend look and also stays true to my love of putting old beside new," Cathy says.
The kitchen/living area incorporates a contemporary kitchen and L-shaped sofa from Ikea, mixed with vintage, secondhand and antique pieces for a colourful and creative look. A blend of upcycled items and mid-century pieces add personality to the rest of the house.
Nancy's bed was sourced on Donedeal; her locker got a new coat of paint and is complemented by a trunk, which Cathy left in its original condition. "When restoring old pieces, if you're unsure how to approach it and the piece was expensive or passed down through the family, you're better off to leave the restoration to a professional," Cathy maintains.
"You need to consider that some pieces might look better not restored. For example, an old metal chair with a few scuffs and peeling paint has a lot of character and charm that you will lose if you try to make it look new."
Dabbling in a little DIY can be fun, Cathy says. "Start with something small and remember that with DIY, especially where painting is involved, it's all about the prep work.
"One of my proudest DIYs to date is our kitchen table. It wasn't a very complex DIY but as we use it everyday and it's designed to fit in well with our kitchen island; I take a lot of pride in it. I bought four hairpin legs on eBay, a length of 40mm MDF board and some paint and varnish. It was built before dinner time."
Cathy also made the headboard in the master bedroom. It was crafted from leftover timber from the extension building. "I made a frame at the back and sanded and varnished the timber."
Giving old pieces new functions is often part of the fun. "I bought two tall filing cabinets with the intention of hanging coats and scarves in them. I think I need a third one as Nancy has accumulated a lot more jackets and coats in the past year," Cathy says.
Her expert eye and handywoman skills helped her create an eye-catching interior with the minimum outlay.
"There are places that specialise in just selling on designer mid-century furniture, mostly in Dublin, but these pieces are often out of my budget.
"You are paying a bit extra with these businesses as they spend a lot of time sourcing the pieces for their customers," she says.
Where to hunt down vintage classics
For those in search of investment pieces, de Veres’ design auction at 35 Kildare Street, Dublin, on May 22, will showcase covetable classic 20th century pieces. “Classic 20th-century design features furniture with very clean lines and as such is well suited to a modern setting,” says director Rory Guthrie (deveres.ie).
“Quality is the key. When you look at a piece of Danish furniture from the 1960s you can see the quality of cabinet making. They really made beautiful furniture, using premium woods like rosewood, that is built to last. Their furniture is also incredibly useful, following in the Danish model of ‘form follows function’, In a lot of ways they compare to the 18th-century Georgians in that they made high quality furniture, but furniture that was made to be used.”
When it comes to name-checking the star designers, Michael Mortell (michaelmortell.ie), who has a gallery in Francis Street, Dublin, says that with the current political uncertainty worldwide, nothing is guaranteed. “However, if one were thinking of investing, rare pieces by the star designers of the mid-century period, such as Royere, Perriand, Max Ingrand, and Gio Ponti, you would have to be prepared to spend extremely serious money as these pieces are highly sought after. When dealing with pieces of this value, provenance is always crucial.”
However, if not purchasing for investment but simply to enhance your home, good design, quality of materials, workmanship and personal appeal should always be the defining features along with buying from a reliable source, Michael says.
Ireland is the only EU country that turns a blind eye to the sale of copied furniture, according to Rory. “As a result, there are many reproductions on the market. Furniture that at first glance looks to be and, in fact, trades off the reputation of the original design but differs from the original in some way, so as to not be a direct copy. They vary greatly in quality, from very cheap imitations to pieces that are well made. However, they hold no resale value and the quality of material can mean they don’t wear particularly well.”
So how do you tell if you have an original? Original 20th-century designs are still offered today by licensed manufacturers and sold under licence, with the maker’s stamp/label, says Rory.
“Condition is also very important, as buyers want to take the piece home straight away and use it. They don’t want to restore or reupholster, they want it ready to go. The advantage we have is the furniture can be delivered by de Veres the day you buy it, no waiting time, and it doesn’t arrive in a flat pack box.”
For those unsure as to how best to incorporate mid-century gems into a scheme, Rory says a good interior designer who listens to what you like and then makes it work, can be invaluable. “The ability to have a connection with a piece of furniture brings with it a sense of tradition that can’t be bought from the pages of a furniture catalogue. Anything I’ve bought brand new has either not survived or I’ve grown bored of it. Focusing on two or three statement pieces that you love, I don’t think you can go too wrong there.”